The Power of Habit

Charles Duhigg

What is your brain doing right now? Certainly, it is directing the functions that allow you to breathe, remain awake and read. How about other tasks—those functions we can’t observe? Despite the masses of data that today’s research is compiling about the brain, we continue to grapple with some of the most basic phenomena governing behavior.

We are animals, and habits keep us alive. But, we also have imagination and free will. So, why do we cling to unhelpful, habitual behavior, such as overeating, smoking, or tailgating? Why, as a group or a society, do we veer off into absurdity when a more sensible course of action is available to us? These are the central questions Charles Duhigg explores in  The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2014).

Duhigg, a New York Times business writer,  sorts through the research and highlights some useful ideas. And, he tells amusing stories about our brains making us do wacky things or achieve greatness. In these stories some people make progress but others lose their battles with disease, their family members, or their jobs.

Duhigg writes about a “habit loop” that governs habitual behavior. It unfolds in three phases—the cue, the routine and the reward. A cue can be anything from the blinking lights of a casino to a five-o’clock shadow. It tells the brain to go into automatic mode and prompts a behavior to play out with very little thought. A man may move mindlessly through the steps, for example, of getting out his razor and shaving cream, or pulling his car over, entering a casino and approaching the cashier’s cage. The reward, which completes the loop, is something the brain likes. Even if it is harmful, it pleases the brain at some level.

Duhigg describes how a reward helps the brain remember a habit loop in the future. And, he provides evidence for his central premise: habits can be changed if the person or the leader understands how they work. The idea is to place less focus on the “executive function” area of the brain (the frontal lobe) and more on the habit-making area. This region, the basal ganglia, controls pattern recognition, memories and emotion. Bad habits make a glaring case for the power of the basal ganglia as it overrides the frontal lobe’s functioning.

Duhigg’s three-step loop is based on the simple beauty of behaviorism: stimulus, response, reward. He walks the concept right to the edge of over-simplification before enriching it with a look at craving. Understanding craving, he says, is the secret to changing habits. Successful corporations are extremely skilled at this. He details how Proctor & Gamble reformulated Febreeze so consumers would crave the reward it delivers. In the beginning, thecompany could not get the product to sell even though it was very effective at removing odors. Today, people buy it regularly because P&G figured out how to get them hooked on a completely unnecessary reward. The scent in Febreeze is the cherry on top of the sundae—the reward you give yourself for finishing a cleaning task.

That explains how we move toward a pleasurable experience, but what about problems that develop as we avoid painful experiences? A close look at habits can show precisely how the avoidance of pain prevents people from achieving goals. Duhigg relates the findings of one experiment with people who were recovering from hip or knee surgery. They were  allprescribed painful physical therapy and exercise to aid in their healing. It turns out that the patients who wrote down a goal for each week made more progress than patients who did not. The key, however, was that their progress was based on a detailed plan for avoiding pain. The successful patients focused on inflection points, the times when their pain was so great that they were very tempted to quit. The success happened because they had written down, in advance, a list of likely obstacles and specific plans for dealing with them.

Starbucks uses this concept to train workers for tense moments with customers at the counter. Many people will never work in a service role because they dread this type of conflict. To plan for inflection points, Starbucks developed the LATTE method—listen, take action, thank the customer, then explain what happened. New employees must practice these behaviors over and over until they become habit. This may seem obvious but Duhigg leads the reader through the Starbucks history, which includes some not-so-glorious times.

No discussion of habits would be complete without a look at willpower and belief. How does grit, or willpower, wane when we’re tired, overcommitted, or challenged in other ways? Duhigg explores this question with a look at, for example, the behavior of alcoholics. Alcoholics Anonymous provides sensible, habit-changing guidance based on decades of experience. But, most ex-drinkers will say it is the spiritual element, or belief element, of the program that provides them with the critical support needed to remain sober.

Another example is the story of the amazing comeback and winning streak of the Tampa Bay Bucaneers football team. It only seems amazing, says Duhigg, if you don’t understand the science of the inner brain. The “turnaround man” who drove their success was head coach Tony Dungy. For years, he had preached the wisdom of a laser-like focus on habits. When the Bucs hired him, he was able to demonstrate its transformative power. As football lovers will recall, Dungy did not win a Super Bowl with the Bucs. He did win it with the Indianapolis Colts. Duhigg attributes the win, in large part, to the death of Dungy’s son by suicide. The tragedy, and the “social habits of friendship,” caused some players to enter a level of belief in their coach that they had previously not known.

This book is clearly a good resource for sales and marketing professionals. But what about other leaders, who are moving their organizations forward within today’s complex work environments? The major trends in those environments are, according to Forbes, a general skills gap, paired with increased variations in the makeup of the workforce. A huge variety of contractors, freelancers, temp-to-hire folks and outsourced labor are driving many corporate functions. Succession planning is also a chief concern as more and more older workers retire. At the same time, 60-somethings are increasingly remaining in the workforce since they can’t afford to retire. And, the ethnic and racial makeup of the country continues to change steadily. Pair these factors with technology that is changing by leaps and bounds, and you have complexity that begs for clear, understandable objectives. A tight focus on habits may provide some of that clarity.

Organizations, like individuals, need routines that are performed almost automatically, so the brain can retain enough mental energy to deal with the people, events and things that are new, unusual or difficult to navigate. Duhigg describes the importance of “keystone habits”. These are the habits that keep individuals focused on a common mission and common goals. They are the building blocks of positive change. He lays out three ways that keystone habits encourage change, and these will look familiar to the experienced leader. They create small wins; they create “structures that help other habits flourish”; and, they create “cultures where new values become ingrained.” Like Starbucks, every organization should clearly communicate, and train employees in, these key behaviors.

The book’s treatment of societal change offers some interesting perspectives. However, the other sections may prove more valuable for practical, organizational use.

Monica Regan

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